But You Really Had To Be There… by John Nedwill

Over the last fortnight I have been preparing for Games Expo 2022. This is a gathering of tabletop gamers of all kinds – role-players, boardgamers, cardgamers and miniatures gamers – that takes part every year at the NEC in Birmingham. As one of the regular volunteer games masters (just one of the names we go by), every year I prepare five game sessions. Each game session is supposed to entertain six people for up to four hours at a time – four hours of improvised storytelling and inspired madness. My preparations involve writing the plots for the gaming sessions, mapping out locations, creating characters – both major and minor – and creating protagonist characters for the player. It’s just like plotting out a story. So, it’s no surprise that I have to find some way to relax. And what better way to relax than with a good book.

The book that came to hand was a short story collection – “Mage’s Blood and Old Bones: stories set in the universe of the Tunnels & Trolls game,” written by the people who created the game. The foreword discussed fantasy literature and gaming. In particular, the author of the foreword noted that, in his opinion, “Gaming stories always make bad fiction, while fantasy fiction makes bad games.”

Having just spent the last two weeks deep in rulebooks, notebooks and character sheets, this sentiment took me by surprise. “Really?” I thought. Then, after a moment’s consideration, “Yes. Really.”

If your only experience of tabletop roleplaying games is through watching such things as Critical Roll or Dimension 20, then you might be under the impression that gaming sessions are full of action and adventure, and that fantasy literature and tabletop roleplaying would be perfect matches for each other. After all, the fantasy and science-fiction shelves of most bookshops are now filled with books based on various gaming franchises – both computer and tabletop. And, if you have ever been in a gaming shop (at least one that isn’t devoted to Warhammer), then you will see plenty of sourcebooks and splatbooks based on media franchises.

However, literature and gaming are very, very different. If a fantasy novel is a symphony – carefully composed and orchestrated – then a gaming session is freeform jazz. In a fantasy novel the characters are well behaved and follow their assigned roles. The equivalent in a gaming session are the players. Players are wilful, independent and (for the most part) determined to be the stars of their own stories. And that means that anything beyond the loosest of plots in a game is rarely followed. A typical tabletop roleplaying session will be full of plans made on the hoof, arguments and shameless grandstanding; all to the constant background of the games master’s exasperated sighs.

This doesn’t mean that roleplaying games are not full of great stories. The stories, however, are not in the action that goes on around the table. Rather, the stories are in the minds of those playing the games. There are still the sweeping vistas beloved of scenery porn; there are the epic struggles of great warriors; there are deeds that will go down in history. And, like all tales, these only grow in the telling. Old gaming groups can and do reminisce about their adventures. But, to know the true stories, you really had to be there … .

OMP Admin Note:  John Nedwill is a writer, OMP Network member, and a regular #OneMillionProject Blogger.  His work can be found on Wattpad.com and in the One Million Project’s Short Story Anthologies published in February 2018.

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